Interview: Jonathan Blow - Xbox Live Arcade 'A Pain In The Ass' For Indies

Gamasutra speaks to Braid and The Witness dev Jon Blow about digital distribution -- and he has some choice words about Microsoft's service, arguing that competitors like Steam and iOS are simpler for developers to deal with.
Gamasutra speaks to Braid and The Witness dev Jon Blow about digital distribution -- and he has some choice words about Microsoft's service, arguing that competitors like Steam and iOS are simpler for developers to deal with. As part of the conversation that lead to the extensive interview feature posted earlier this week, indie developer Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness) also discussed his feelings about the current digital distribution landscape with Gamasutra. Blow has estimated the budget of his upcoming game The Witness at $2 million, and he says that -- despite Braid being iconic to the Xbox Live Arcade service -- he doesn't necessarily need Microsoft to make his money back. "There's no need to" sign a platform-exclusive contract with anyone, he says. "If the goal is to make that $2 million, not only is that kind of a safe target, but because the game's 3D and whatnot, I'm pretty sure we could make that back just off Steam and the iPad safely. Like, it's not even a gamble to say that," he told Gamasutra. The Witness' platform plans are up in the air. According to official press materials distributed to Gamasutra, they are "To be decided. At launch, at least PC and one console. Others later." Blow acknowledged that Microsoft is "getting a little softer in their exclusivity," a move we recently saw with Bastion, which is due on PC less than a month after it debuted on XBLA as a Summer of Arcade exclusive. Exclusivity, then, gives him pause, but that's not the major issue with Microsoft. "I think the thing that they don't understand -- between that and the cert stuff that they do -- they just kind of make themselves a pain in the ass. For a big game, for a triple-A game that costs 60 bucks, and has a giant budget and all these people working on it, the amount extra that that pain in the ass adds is not that much," Blow said. "But if you make an XBLA game, the amount of bullshit that adds is gigantic. It can take a third to a half of the effort required to build your game, in some cases, and I don't think that they understand that. I don't think that they understand that, at least for that size of game, they're competing very heavily with Steam and iOS for developer mindshare." Cert -- or certification, in which a developer's game must meet certain technical requirements dictated by Microsoft before it can be released on the platform -- isn't the only problem. "I can live a comfortable life, and just put my game on Steam without that much of a hassle, or I can have the XBLA business people dick me around and give me asshole contracts that I need to spend three months negotiating back to somewhere reasonable, that they knew," said Blow. "And then have all these arguments with them and go through this horrible cert process. It's like, at some point, the question 'Why should I do that?' arises." However, Blow admitted, the platform does still have its appeal as a developer. "XBLA does have a big audience, and it's still probably bigger than Steam for certain kinds of games." Even so, he pointed out, "We just had Terraria on Steam... not to mention Minecraft, which doesn't even need Steam. So even the argument that XBLA is the biggest market is starting to come into question." He's unsure about Microsoft's potential to change the platform, however. "I don't know how much longer that that can go without something changing. I don't know. Maybe quite a long time, knowing the abilities of these companies," said Blow. Braid was originally published on Xbox Live Arcade by Microsoft. However, he told Gamasutra that he has not spoken to publishers about The Witness since 2009, and his understanding of the situation may be outdated. "What that means, to have Microsoft as your publisher, I think, varies a lot from year to year, because they change policies to do whatever they think is best, to steer the service. They have personnel changes and all that. So who knows what's happening?"

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